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Kidnapped twice, trainer Antonio Sano eyeing Kentucky Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Getting to what will be his first Kentucky Derby is on Antonio Sano’s mind almost constantly these days.

To say he took an unusual route would be an understatement.

Kidnapped on two separate occasions eight years ago in his native Venezuela – once for just a few hours, the other for 36 harrowing days, both times being freed after paying ransoms that he prefers not to disclose – the trainer and his family came to the United States to start their lives over in what they hoped to be a safer environment.

Fast forward eight years, and the 54-year-old Sano has a horse named Gunnevera, the favorite for Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and one that seems to already be among the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

“I had a little problem,” Sano said. “Now I have a big opportunity.”

A “little problem.” That’s what he calls being held twice against his will, inevitably wondering if he would ever see his family again. Now he’s a few weeks away from stepping onto the grounds of Churchill Downs for the first time, assuming Gunnevera – a winner in four of his last six starts, with three of those victories coming in graded stakes races – gets out of this weekend with no problems.

Long before Gunnevera ever saw the track, Sano knew there was something special.

“I bought the horse in September 2015,” Sano said. “I worked the horse three or four times and I said, `This is my horse.’ He’s good.”

Gunnevera already has enough points to assure himself of a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Still, Sano hopes he’s done enough to set Gunnevera up for a win in the Florida Derby – the race that Nyquist used to prep for his win at Churchill Downs a year ago.

“It’s very important, this moment,” Sano said.

These are very troubled times for Venezuela, and that isn’t new.

The U.S. Department of State has long warned Americans from going to Venezuela, saying “violent crime – including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking – is endemic throughout the country.” Just this week, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled it can take over the powers of congress in a move that some said was a step toward installing a dictatorship in the South American nation.

Despite it all, Sano is proud of where he’s from – and what he’s come from.

“Venezuela is my history. America is my now,” Sano said. “At this moment, I’m working for my kids. My kids are what it’s all about for me. I’m working for their better.”

It’s no coincidence that Gunnevera’s ownership group includes two Venezuelans. Sano, of course, is Venezuelan. So it only makes sense that the jockey be Venezuelan as well – and that jockey is Javier Castellano, the winner of the last four Eclipse Awards as the top rider in the game.

Castellano called Sano to ask for the job. It doesn’t always work that way at Derby time.

“Maybe it’s meant to be,” said Castellano, who has ridden in 10 Kentucky Derbys. “Who knows?”

Sano doesn’t speak often about what he went through, and when he does he keeps certain details private. He said he’s still very leery of his family’s safety, and takes extra measures to help ensure their security in the U.S.

But Castellano knows the tale well, and raves about the person Sano is.

“It’s amazing,” Castellano said. “One thing you have to realize is to appreciate life. You help that kind of guy. He’s always helpful, very humble guy, always appreciates the opportunities people give to him. Hey, he’s lucky to be here. So you just enjoy the ride.”

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.